Gujarat Muslims take BJP battle to ballot boxes

By RAHUL BEDI Herald correspondent

AHMEDABAD - Muslims in Gujarat state, western India, will use the ballot box tomorrow to try to end deadly religious strife.

"The Muslim vote is one of the few remaining weapons the community has against the Hindu nationalists," Aziz Tankarvi, editor of the large-circulation Gujarat Today newspaper, said in the state's largest city, Ahmedabad.

The city bore the brunt of months of sectarian rioting in which more than 1000 people died. Most were Muslims.

Muslims, who make up about 11 per cent of Gujarat's 33 million voters, can determine the outcome in 52 of the state's 182-seat assembly.

Community leaders are counting on a strong turnout to swing the outcome in the close race between Chief Minister Naraendra Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the main opposition Congress Party.

Local Muslim leaders are making arrangements to ferry voters to polling stations that will be guarded by more than 100,000 federal, paramilitary and state police.

"Gujarat's election will be a litmus test for the future of a secular India and the BJP's aim of establishing Hindutva [Hindu hegemony] across the country through its anti-Muslim policies," said Dr Ghulam Chauhan, a respected Muslim in the agricultural town of Kalol, 45km north of Ahmedabad.

Sugra Bibi, a housewife in nearby Pansar, said: "The Hindus we lived with for generations have looted, pillaged and terrorised us. How can we trust them again? I will vote to ensure that such tragedy is not unleashed on Muslims again."

The rioting in Gujarat began in February and lasted until May.

It was triggered by the burning of a trainload of 59 Hindu men, women and children, allegedly by a Muslim mob.

Human rights groups and non-governmental organisations accused Modi's Administration of direct involvement in the revenge killings across the state.

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